Epilepsy in dogs
Epilepsy is one of the most common, chronic neurological disorders that affects many people and their dogs too. Unexplainable bursts of peculiar electrical activity in the brain cause your dog to have a seizure, and epilepsy refers to the appearance of seizures that are repeated and unprovoked.
You may hear seizures being labelled as ‘fits’ or convulsions and if your pet does suffer from epilepsy, it’s likely that the condition will be with them for the rest of their life.
Various things can cause epilepsy, for example, it can be triggered by structural issues in the brain or even passed down from parent to puppy.
What is epilepsy?
Many dogs will actually experience a seizure at some point in their lives, an estimated 0.6% of the UK canine population actually suffer with epilepsy.
Epilepsy is the chronic, random reoccurrence of seizures. Seizures happen when the neurons in the brain encounter an uncontrollable spark of electrical activity, which causes abnormal differences in your dog’s muscles, movements, behaviours and their overall awareness of the surroundings. Epilepsy is pretty much exactly the same for humans.
Typically, a seizure will be characterised by jerking, paddling movements with the legs and twitching muscles. If your dog is diagnosed with epilepsy, the condition will unfortunately be with them for the rest of their life.
What causes epilepsy in dogs and what are the different types of the condition?
As epilepsy is so common, there’s a vast range of different factors that could be causing the seizures. Most of the time, epilepsy can be categorised into three main types, idiopathic, structural and reactive.
One of the most common types of epilepsy and probably one of the most frustrating is idiopathic epilepsy. This is because this type of epilepsy is when the cause of the condition can’t be properly determined.
Idiopathic epilepsy is when the condition is inherited from parent to pup, but there is no exact explanation why. Usually, idiopathic epilepsy will first start to crop up in younger and middle-aged dogs.
Other diseases and types of epilepsy must be ruled out before your pup can be diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy.
Structural epilepsy is essentially the opposite to idiopathic, it’s where an underlying issue that can actually be identified is the problem triggering the seizure. Essentially, it’s when there is an abnormal structural concern in the brain. Problems that could be causing the epileptic fits are:
- Liver disease
- Low or high blood sugar
- Kidney disease
- Brain cancer
- Head trauma
- Lafora’s disease
Lafora’s disease, commonly affecting Miniature Wire-Haired Dachshunds, is a gene defect that creates an accumulation of toxic substances in the brain. Consequently, the brain’s structure is altered and seizures occur.
Seizures that occur in accordance with stimuli are labelled reactive seizures. These seizures are not technically a form of epilepsy, but they still occur as a reaction to a temporary issue in the brain.
Exposure to toxins or differences in the metabolism are things that could spark a reactive seizure. A recent study shows that poisoning appears to be the most frequent cause of reactive seizures, affecting 39% of dogs in the study, and then hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels) is the second most common, with 32% of dogs being affected.
What can trigger my dog’s epilepsy?
If your pet has already been diagnosed with epilepsy, whether that be idiopathic or structural epilepsy, there are certain triggers that can bring on an epileptic fit.
For example, fatigue, stress, changes in their environment or their typical routine, a trip to the vet, thunderstorms and missing their medication are all causes that could lead to a seizure.
What happens during a seizure?
A seizure can vary massively between each dog, but the general characteristics are:
- Paddling motions with their limbs
- Stiffened muscles
- Muscle twitches
- Loss of consciousness
- Biting at their tongue
- Foaming at the mouth
- Loss of awareness, not responsive to anything
Seizures are made up of three main stages. The pre-ictal phase, ictal phase and the post-ictal phase.
Initially, your pup will experience the pre-ictal phase, occurring just before the seizure begins. You may notice a difference in your dog’s behaviour, they may seem restless and anxious when they would otherwise be relaxed.
Bizarre behaviours such as walking around in circles, hiding, shaking, whining and seeking out their owner are common in this stage, it’s kind of like they’re pre-empting that the seizure is about to happen, you might be able to visibly see their nerves. This stage could only be a few minutes but sometimes it might continue for several hours, which will be difficult to watch your dog in such distress.
Afterwards, your pet will encounter the ictal phase, this is where the actual seizure occurs. This stage can manifest itself in various ways and again it can last just a few seconds, or it can persist for several minutes.
Immediately after the seizure, your dog will experience the post-ictal phase, which is mostly just a state of confusion. Understandably, they will be feeling disorientated and slightly strange after a seizure, which can be paired with salivation, pacing up and down and feeling agitated. The seriousness of the seizure won’t have any impact on how long the post-ictal period lasts.
Are seizures painful for my dog?
Luckily, the seizure won’t be painful for your dog, they might not even know it happened! Depending on the severity of their post-ictal period, they may just be confused and even slightly panicked.
Dogs can sustain a few injuries during a seizure, but this is rare, this only really happens if they bump into any furniture during their convulsions.
What are the different types of seizure?
Seizures can be very varied, presenting themselves in many different ways. This is why it’s important to understand the distinct types of seizures and what they look like so owners can quickly identify what is happening.
These types of seizures will only arise within one specific region in only one half of your dog’s brain. In most cases, the way these seizures present themselves will be dependent on the section of the brain the electrical activity is happening in, and what the purpose of that part is. This means focal seizures can be extremely varied.
Focal seizures can also be distinguished into two further types, simple and complex. This is based on how aware your pet is during the seizure, during a simple focal seizure your dog will likely be conscious, whereas vision and awareness will be hindered during a complex focal seizure.
Focal epileptic seizures can appear as:
- Motor signs: Facial twitches, head shaking, balance issues, muscle spasms and tremors
- Autonomic nervous system signs (bodily functions that happen involuntarily without conscious effort): Salivation, vomiting, dilated pupils, fur standing up
- Behavioural signs: Restlessness, stress, seeking out your attention, fearful. They could be barking, growling, moaning and biting at seemingly nothing, having hallucinations.
A lot of the time, a focal seizure will eventually develop into a generalised seizure.
Unlike focal seizures, generalised seizures actually impact both sides of the brain. The appearance of a generalised seizure will probably be more violent in looks and more noticeable to you than a focal seizure.
You’ll notice that your dog will lose consciousness and they’ll possibly even urinate and defecate during it. Typically, a generalised seizure will have evolved from a focal seizure, this is the most common type of seizure that affects our furry friends.
Generalised seizures will appear on both sides of the dog’s body and these seizures can fall into separate categories, which are tonic, clonic, tonic-clonic, myoclonic and atonic.
- Tonic – Muscles will contract and stiffen; this can last from a few seconds to a few minutes
- Clonic – Muscles will begin to move and jerk in a rapid and rhythmic pattern, your pup will do this involuntarily
- Tonic-clonic – The tonic phase immediately followed by the clonic phase which are detailed above
- Myoclonic – Random movements and jerking that occurs on both sides of the body
- Atonic – These are often referred to as ‘drop attacks’, they’re non-convulsive and will cause your dog to suddenly collapse to the floor due to an overall loss of muscle tone
As stated, focal seizures advancing into a generalised seizure is the most prevalent type of seizure dogs experience. A large proportion of the time, the focal seizure stage can be missed by owners as it can be over and done with in a matter of seconds, going straight into the more noticeable generalised seizure stage.
If your dog is having a generalised seizure, rack your brains to try and remember exactly what your dog was doing before the seizure began.
Take note of any peculiar behaviours your dog was displaying right before the seizure, or if you noticed anything that could have potentially triggered your dog’s epileptic fit.
Providing your vet with a thorough timeline of the seizure will help them to diagnose the type of epilepsy if this is their first seizure.
Unlike the typical seizure that would probably spring to your mind, a psychomotor seizure involves strange behaviour that only lasts a couple of seconds. During this seizure, your dog may start attacking an imaginary object, or chasing their tail.
It may be tricky to determine this type of seizure from your pup just being a little strange, but a dog that has psychomotor seizures will demonstrate the same odd behaviours every time they’re having a seizure.
Length and severity of seizures
One-off, single seizures that are unexplainable will be something many pups encounter during their lifetime, and these will not be too worrying.
However, some seizures can be extended or occur immediately one after another, and these are the ones that could be worrisome, potentially even life-threatening. These seizures can be classified into two types, cluster seizures and status epilepticus.
These types of seizures can be recognised when your dog experiences two or more epileptic fits within a 24-hour period.
Cluster seizures are quite common, affecting approximately ¾ of the pups that suffer with idiopathic epilepsy.
If your dog is experiencing the seizure for several minutes, it can cause danger to your dog as their body temperature will start to increase. This can cause hyperthermia (an elevated body temperature) to ensue, which creates a whole bunch of secondary problems.
Your vet may prescribe emergency medication if your dog experiences cluster seizures.
Status epilepticus is a dangerous form of seizure. It’s where the fit will last for a period longer than 5 minutes, or when your dog will endure two seizures without returning back to their ‘normal’ state in between the two separate seizures.
Status epilepticus can last longer than 30 minutes. These types of seizure can be particularly dangerous for your dog, potentially causing permanent neurological damage which could be fatal.
You must contact your vet instantly if you suspect this is happening, so your dog can be supplied with intravenous anticonvulsants.
Status epilepticus can arise in both convulsive and non-convulsive forms. Convulsive status epilepticus will look like the typical tonic-clonic seizure format, where your pet’s muscles will be jerking and stiffening.
On the other hand, non-convulsive status epilepticus is when the dog doesn’t come back into consciousness within around 30 minutes of the seizure occurring. An unresponsive, unconscious state defines non-convulsive status epilepticus rather than any convulsions.
Nearly 60% of dogs who suffer with epilepsy will experience at least one occurrence of status epilepticus in their lifetime. It’s incredibly important to recognise the signs so you can take your dog to the vet immediately.
What should I do if my dog is having a seizure?
Watching your dog experience a seizure will be distressing for you and you might feel completely useless as there isn’t much you can actually do except observe.
The number one thing you must do is keep calm and just let the seizure play out, as you won’t be able to stop it in any way. Primarily, most seizures won’t last a very long time and your dog will probably be completely unaware that it’s even happened, apart from being a little confused and nervous.
Although it’s tempting to hold, touch or pet your pup during their seizure to try and comfort them, it’s recommended not to do so. Dogs can accidentally lash out during an epileptic fit, so try to avoid touching them, even though it’s heartbreaking to just stand and watch. Maybe talk to your dog to reassure them that you’re there.
Clear the space around them to avoid your dog bumping into any furniture while they are experiencing their convulsions, this will keep your pet safe.
Try and observe what your dog is actually doing during the seizure. Noting down what the first sign of the seizure was, which part and side of the body was the first to show any symptoms and the length of time the epileptic fit lasted for is ideal.
This will all be useful information for your vet, especially if your dog experiences seizures regularly. Keeping track of the length of time, regular signs and how often they occur will help your vet determine if their condition is worsening and if their treatment is working.
Of course, when your dog is experiencing a seizure it’s hard to stay calm and think about this, but if you can capture the seizure on video, it’ll be extremely beneficial for your vet. The best way to describe exactly what happened is through video, giving your vet an exact visual of the seizure.
Should I take my dog to the vet if they have a seizure?
If your dog is faced with a seizure, it’s not always necessary to immediately rush them to the vet, especially if it’s only momentary. However, have a phone call with your vet, especially if they’ve never experienced a seizure before.
As stated previously, cluster seizures and status epilepticus are two seizure scenarios that will warrant instant, emergency veterinary intervention. If you notice your dog in either of these states, get them to the vet urgently.
How will epilepsy in dogs be diagnosed?
After your dog has recovered from a seizure, you’ll of course want to know why it actually happened.
To diagnose epilepsy and the specific type of epilepsy your dog is experiencing, your vet will require a thorough understanding of their medical history and how the seizure played out (a video is preferable), alongside a full, physical examination including blood and urine tests. Potentially, MRI scans can be carried out to detect any abnormalities in the brain.
These tests are great at determining structural epilepsy (epilepsy caused by an underlying condition), trying to detect any disorders relating to the liver, heart, kidneys, electrolytes and levels of blood sugar.
Also, these tests can concentrate on searching for any exposure to poisonous substances, one of the main causes of reactive seizures.
If your vet is unable to find any direct causes of your pet’s epilepsy, this is where they’ll likely be diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, which is where no underlying causes are found. This means that your dog is simply genetically predisposed to suffering from epilepsy.
No test can really identify idiopathic epilepsy, it’s more of a process of elimination. Idiopathic epilepsy will be diagnosed if all the other triggers for seizures have been excluded.
How will epilepsy in dogs be treated?
In most cases, epileptic dogs will receive treatment only if they have:
- Regular seizures, probably more than one a month
- Cluster seizures
- Seizures that last a long period of time and are violent and severe in appearance.
Unfortunately, epilepsy can’t really be fully cured and it’s a condition that will require lifelong management. Luckily, medication is widely available to ease the condition and allow your dog to live a long, happy life that is mostly seizure-free.
A prescription of antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) will work to provide your pet with a long-held seizure-free status. Ideally, with AEDs, you’ll be able to find that perfect balance of minimising the regularity and severity of the seizures while experiencing minimal side effects.
This will all be discussed in-depth with your vet to provide you with the necessary details to ease your concerns.
Medication will need to be continued for the rest of your dog’s life, alongside frequent check-ups and blood tests to ensure the drug dosage is correct and the treatment is working as it should.
Consistency is key
You must stay consistent, supplying your dog with their medication at the same time every day with the accurate dosage amount. Without this consistency, your poor pup may suffer from another epileptic episode. Never stop giving your dog their AEDs without discussing this with your vet.
Once your dog begins their AED treatment, they may experience various negative side effects, whether that’s immediately after their treatment begins or when the vet starts to increase their dosage.
What are the common side effects of AED therapy?
- Increased appetite and thirst
- Weakness of back legs
- Weight gain
- Behavioural changes
If you notice any negative side effects, try not to panic. Most effects will usually completely disappear, or at least significantly decrease in a couple of weeks, it just takes your dog’s body some time to build up a tolerance to the new drugs. Side effects will differ from dog to dog and different AEDs will cause different effects.
In the event that the symptoms persist, it’s essential to keep your vet in the loop and constantly monitor these effects. If the side effects are causing even more detriment to your dog’s quality of life, potentially fatal side effects, the vet may suggest halting the AED therapy.
As stated, never ever stop the treatment before consulting your vet, this could be damaging to your dog, in itself causing seizures and even status epilepticus.
Is there anything I can do to prevent a seizure?
There is no sure-fire way of preventing a seizure, if your dog is diagnosed with epilepsy, it’ll just happen. However, there are a few things pet parents can implement into their day to day lives to hopefully reduce the risk.
As stated already, keeping a note of the symptoms your pup displays before and during a seizure is essential, it’ll help you recognise the onset of the seizure and help your vet understand more about their condition.
Even better, if you’re able to pinpoint the thing triggering the seizure, whether that be a change in routine or environment, lack of sleep, missing their medication or stress, it might be possible to limit their exposure to this trigger. A noisy environment, bright lights and excessive activity can all cause your dog to feel stressed and agitated, resulting in a seizure.
Keeping your dog on a healthy, natural and nutrient-dense diet is necessary for keeping your dog’s health in tip top condition which will in turn help keep them seizure-free.
Also, take your dog for regular consultations with the vet to ensure their treatment is working. This is fundamental in decreasing the frequency of the seizures. At the same time, constantly monitor their blood sugar levels as low blood sugar can be a major trigger for epileptic fits.
Seizures can occur anywhere at anytime, so try and take precautions within the house for when your pup must be left home alone. For example, keeping a baby gate on the staircase in case a seizure begins while you’re out will prevent your poor pup from falling down the stairs or trying to walk up and down the stairs when disorientated after a seizure.
If your pup suffers from epilepsy, it’ll obviously be frightening and keep you on the edge wondering when the next seizure will arise.
Try and keep in mind that epilepsy is a common condition and with the right treatment and monitoring your worries can be eased. Don’t let your dog’s illness rule your life, take each day as it comes and enjoy all the time spent with your four-legged friend!
The prospect of an epilepsy diagnosis will be alarming for any owner. However, with constant monitoring, plenty of conversations between you and your vet and a whole lot of love and care from you, epilepsy is a condition easily managed.
Continual research is underway to try and understand more about epilepsy in the canine population, both hereditary and the type of epilepsy that is gained later in life.
As time goes on, the knowledge of triggers, signs and the effective treatment methods for epilepsy will become more advanced and as a result our dogs will keep seeing an improved quality of life.
- Treatment in canine epilepsy: A systematic review BMC Veterinary Research, 10, (257), Oct 2014, doi.org/10.1186/s12917-014-0257-9
- Status Epilepticus in canine patients Todays Veterinary Practice, Epileptic Emergencies, May/June 2015
- Seizure occurrence in dogs under primary veterinary care in the UK: Prevalence and risk factors Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 32, (5), Sept 2018, 1665-1676, doi:10.1111/jvim.15290
- Metabolic and toxic causes of canine seizure disorders: A retrospective study of 96 cases The Veterinary Journal, 187, (2), Feb 2011, 272-275, doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.10.023